Yogi, Yogin, Yogini, Yoga Practitioner, Yoga Student, Swami, Sannyasi, Rishi, Guru.
Depending on where you live and how you practice, many different names are adopted by those who enjoy yoga. Many require certain credentials, others have complex cultural nuances and some are widely used by the general public in the yoga community.
This article will consider the question ‘What Is a Yogi?’ and help you understand the attributes needed to become one.
We will dive into the origins of the term, the connotations associated with it and discuss its place and use within the yoga community.
Read on for:
- Yogi Definition
- What Is Yoga?
- Yogi Meaning
- Can We Call Ourselves Yogis?
- Important Cultural Considerations
- How To Become A True Yoga Practitioner
What is a yogi?: Yogi Definition
As in the word “yoga”, the word “yogi” is Indian in origin and comes from the Sanskrit word “yogin”, which is derived from the root “yuj”, meaning “to yoke” or “to unite”.
As the word “yoga” and “yogi” have the same definition and origins, a person who calls themselves a yogi is truly dedicated to the practice and committed to bringing the body, mind, and spirit into harmony.
What Is Yoga?
In order to understand what a yogi is, let’s briefly discuss the breadth of the practice.
It is important to note that in ancient times when the term ‘yogi’ was coined, the practice of yoga was very different to how it appears today.Traditionally, yoga was the practice of austere lifestyle observances, meditation and renunciation. There were no group asana classes, yoga retreats or Lululemon pants!
In the context of a practice that is at least 5,000 years old, the physical practice of asana as we know it is a modern invention that began only 100 years ago in the 1930’s in Mysore, India with the development of the Ashtanga practice.
Ashtanga is where the bones of vinyasa, flow and power yoga classes come from.
It is interesting to note that although asana takes root in classical yoga, it was (and is still is) heavily influenced by gymnastics and bodybuilding!
The modern postural practice of yoga, often referred to as asana, was largely invented in the early 20th century and is influenced by gymnastics and bodybuildingMark Singleton “Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice.”
Modern Yoga Studios
In our modern studios, we are often only introduced to asana and basic pranayama and therefore many practitioners are led to believe that this is the entirety of the yoga practice.
In fact, asana is only one part of Patanjali’s 8-limbed path of yoga:
- Yamas (moral observances)
- Niyamas (personal observances)
- Asana (physical practice)
- Pranayama (breathing techniques)
- Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses)
- Dharana (one-pointed focus)
- Dhyana (concentration)
- Samadhi (union/bliss)
If we look into the classical yoga texts such as the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali there is little mention of asana. In the second sutra (Sutra 1:2) yoga is described as
“Yogas citta vritti nirodah” or ‘the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind”
The only physical postures were three of four seated asana used as vehicle for sitting in meditation…
… not a ‘down dog’ in sight!
Why is this important?
As the term ‘yogi’ refers to a person who practices ‘yoga’, it poses an important question …
Can we as modern practitioners who mainly practice asana call ourselves a ‘yogi’?
Let’s dive a little deeper into cultural meaning…
In traditional Indian culture, yogis were highly respected spiritual practitioners who dedicated their lives to the pursuit of self-realization and enlightenment and attained a high level of proficiency.
In his classic book “Autobiography of a Yogi”, spiritual teacher and Yogi Paramahansa Yogananda explains;
“A yogi is a person of unshakable determination, who has burnt to ashes all desires and found the Infinite Reality beyond name and form. He or she lives free from ego identification and has discovered the blissful, eternal state of union with the Divine.
A yogi is someone who practices the ancient science of yoga to attain this goal of self-realization, and lives a life of purity, self-control, and service to humanity. Such a one is a true yogi.”
Over time, the practice of yoga has spread beyond India and has become popular around the world, with many people practising yoga asana as a form of physical exercise or stress relief.
Today, the term “yogi” is often used to refer to anyone who practices yoga, regardless of their spiritual beliefs or level of dedication to the practice.
Important Cultural Considerations
In Hinduism, a yogi is considered to be a practitioner of the science of yoga, which involves meditation, self-discipline, and many other techniques to attain spiritual enlightenment and union with the divine.
Going to a few vinyasa classes each week in and of itself probably doesn’t mean that you’re a yogi!
It’s important to consider that using the term “yogi” to describe ourselves could be considered cultural appropriation in certain circumstances.
The term “yogi” traditionally refers to a person who has dedicated their lives to the practice of yoga and the pursuit of spiritual enlightenment. It has a deep cultural and religious significance both in India and in other South Asian countries where yoga originated.
In recent years, however, the term “yogi” has become increasingly popularized and commercialized in Western culture.
It is often used to describe anyone who practices yoga regularly, regardless of their spiritual beliefs or cultural background.
This has led to concerns about cultural appropriation and the potential exploitation of the spiritual and cultural heritage of yoga.
In general, it is important to approach the practice of yoga with respect for its origins and cultural significance and to avoid appropriating or trivializing its spiritual and philosophical aspects.
So how can we move towards this?
How To Become A True Yoga Practitioner
Becoming a true practitioner of yoga (an not just asana) begins with acknowledging and learning about it’s history and culture of yoga. A great place to begin is with Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. Here is a great article to get you started.
Whether you wish to teach or just deepen your knowledge, a 200 Hour Teacher Training course is also a wonderful way to learn about the scope of the yoga practice.
Exploring the first two limbs of the eight-limbed path of yoga will also introduce you to the philosophy of the practice. The Yamas (moral observances) and Niyamas (personal observances) are the cornerstones of yoga.
There are entire paths of yoga that devote them solely to the mastery of the Yamas and Niyamas and it often said that these are the highest form of yoga.
Yamas: Moral Observances
A true yogi strives to live in harmony with the world, embodying kindness, empathy, compassion and patience.
The five Yamas lay out the foundations for this:
- Ahimsa: non-violence (including actions, words and thoughts)
- Satya: truthfulness (speaking up for ourselves and others with kindness)
- Asteya: non-stealing (including stealing time, resources and information)
- Brahmacharya: moderation (avoiding excess)
- Aparigraha: non-grasping (not becoming attached to possessions or people)
Being committed to these moral observances lays the foundation of all the subsequent limbs of the practice.
Niyamas: Lifestyle Considerations
A true yoga practitioner works to align their lifestyle with the principles of yoga.
The Niyamas define five ways in which to live consciously:
- Saucha: cleanliness (including hygiene, diet, our home, and our choice of entertainment)
- Santosha: contentment (practicing gratitude for what we already have)
- Tapas: self-discipline (the will and determination to follow the yogic path)
- Svadhyaya: self study (studying both the inner self and the sacred texts)
- Ishvara Pranidhana: devotion (surrendering the fruits of our own practice to a higher power to dissolve the ego)
Your dedication and commitment to the Yamas and Niyamas can be the entirety of your yoga practice without ever having to step on the mat.
Philosophically and culturally, these observances are the real practice of yoga.
In its traditional meaning, a yogi is a person who has achieved union of body, mind and spirit through the yoga practice. He or she has utilized the practices of yoga, including the Yamas and Niyamas to come to know their true essence.
The yogi sees the divine in everything and everyone and lives in a state of peace and bliss in harmony with the world around them.
They are able to master their own mind and emotions to radiate love and compassion to all beings; this is a living example of the moral and personal observances of yoga.
Whether you choose to call yourself a ‘yogi’ is a personal decision and there is no right or wrong way to express your relationship with the yoga practice.
If this article has led you to consider adopting other terms to describe your dedication to yoga, some of my favorites are:
- Yoga Practitioner
- Yoga Student
Both emphasize the importance of learning and growth and honor the fact that yoga is a lifetime’s practice and not something that can ever be ‘completed’.
Whatever you choose to name your relationship to yoga, aspiring to emulate the ideals of a yogi is certainly a wonderful way to immerse yourself in the practice.
To deepen your yogic knowledge, you can read about the history of yoga here: